Young Romantics

There is, I think, a myth about creative genius that it takes place in solitary glory. Picture an author, writing. Picture Hemingway, or Wordsworth, or Shakespeare; picture George Eliot or Mary Oliver or Isabelle Allende. In my mind, unless I have direct evidence to the contrary — like Jane Austen, who never had a room or even a proper desk of her own, and hid what she wrote when someone came in the room — I picture them alone, working at a desk, perhaps surrounded by books. But how seldom must this really have been the case? Authors had wives and children and husbands and in-laws, and friends, and money troubles. They travelled, if they could. They walked a lot, in woods and vales and heaths. They had breakfast and dinner and tea, and the servants to provide it, often. They had hobbies: music, especially, and languages, and needlework. They lived, and by definition they wrote, in context.

The great value of Young Romantics, by Daisy Hay, is that she places a whole generation of fantastically talented Romantic poets in their context, which frequently happened to be one another. She begins with Leigh Hunt, whose work is so largely forgotten today, but who was the catalyst for so many of these relationships: his gregariousness, his ability to surround himself with close friends, even when he was improvident, impecunious, and in jail, was unsurpassed. Shelley, Mary Shelley, Keats, Byron, Hazlitt, Haydon, and many others met at his home (or in his jail cell), and when they spun off and found their own friendships, it was Hunt who had led them there by his poetry, his radical politics, and his good humor.

Hay goes into the swing and balance of these men and women as they move in and out of one another’s orbit, in and out of close friendship, in and out of sexual and flirtatious alliance, in and out of stimulating intellectual proximity. The young Romantics were liberals, both politically and personally, and many of the relationships are scandalous even today: Shelley left his first wife, Harriet, pregnant and with a young child, to elope with Mary Wollstonecraft and Claire Clairmont across the continent, and then wrote to Harriet asking her to send money when he ran short. Byron had an affair with his half-sister, Augusta, along with every other animate object he saw, apparently. Shelley (again) asked Mary to be his friend’s mistress in an experiment in free love. All this (and far more — I’ve hardly scratched the surface) took a toll on human relationships: by the time a few years had elapsed, Mary and Claire could scarcely live under the same roof.

But the point of all this is not the tense sexual relationships (though there are plenty of those.) The point is that Mary Shelley drafted Frankenstein during an intellectual summer when Byron, Shelley, Claire, and John Polidori were in close contact with her. Shelley wrote “Julian and Maddalo” about the stimulus of long talks and rides with Byron. Byron sent cantos of Don Juan to Shelley for ideas and criticism. Keats dedicated some of his poetry to Leigh Hunt, and Shelley wrote “Ozymandias” at Hunt’s fireside during a timed sonnet-writing contest. These authors prized their solitude, of course, but according to Hay, it was the tangled web of their lives, the friction of their interactions, that really sparked their genius in ways that might not otherwise have happened.

A couple of months ago, I read an excellent group biography of the Lunar Society, by Jenny Uglow. I think, having read Young Romantics, that this, rather than the singleton hero-of-his-own-life biography, is the way to go. Hay’s ability to create a context for these authors — a social, political, sexual, familial context — was intricate and fascinating. She was able to write about the burden experimental living placed on the women in the picture, without marginalizing either the women or the importance of the experiment; she was able to talk about spectacularly cruel behavior (I’m looking at you, Byron) with a discerning eye about the way it sheds light on his work. Her approach was fresh and helpful, and frankly I didn’t want to stop reading it just because most of the characters had died before their thirtieth birthdays. If this group has ever caught your interest, this comes highly recommended.

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27 Responses to Young Romantics

  1. litlove says:

    Oh this is so my kind of book! Thank you for the lovely review – straight on the wish list it goes.

    • Jenny says:

      I do actually think you would enjoy this a lot. It is extremely effective especially at evoking the position of the women in the group, something I hadn’t appreciated before. Very well done, and sprightly prose (with notes!)

  2. Chris Harris says:

    I agree with ‘litlove’, this book sounds like it is right in my wheelhouse, and onto my Amazon ‘wishlist’ it goes! These are all some of my favorite writers and poets. Thanks for the terrific review! Cheers! Chris

    • Jenny says:

      I’m so glad! I’ve never much liked the Romantic poets — am of the firm opinion that Shelley is a goop — but reading about their lives was riveting.

  3. I love group biographies! Especially for people like the Romantics, who, on their own, I’m not hugely fascinated by, but who suddenly become so much more interesting when viewed together. I was already excited to read this but now even more so!

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, it was when they came together that I really got a sense of them. I’ll say, too, that their lives, and particularly the political and personal dimensions, were far more interesting than I’ve ever found their poetry. A biography was much more interesting to me than an anthology would have been.

  4. Jenny says:

    Like Claire, I’m not usually that into the Romantics (I like Coleridge but he wasn’t this batch of Romantics, and other than him I am mainly immune to their appeal), but this sounds like a fun way of making myself learn about them. And maybe come to like them a bit better? People are never more interesting than when you can see them through the eyes of their friends as well as through a biographer’s lens.

    • Jenny says:

      I loved this book, but this is NOT the way to make yourself like the Romantics better, except for Mary Shelley and perhaps Keats. At the end of the book, I found myself detesting Byron and Shelley (well, I felt a bit sorry for him because of the way he died), wondering why Hunt couldn’t ever get it together, and thinking Claire Clairmont was a bit sketchy. Mary Shelley, who eloped with Shelley when she was SIXTEEN, seemed the only sane one in the bunch, and she lost four out of her five children, poor thing. But Hay writes so well that you can’t look away. It’s so well done. Wonderful stuff. Secrets and back story!

  5. The Romantics are my favorite poets, so I am definitely interested in this one!

    • Jenny says:

      I’m delighted to hear it! I like modern poetry almost exclusively, so this was all new to me. I really hope you like it!

  6. I have a really, really hard time with taking Romantic poetry seriously (with the partial exception of Byron), but this sounds like an interesting study. Group bios are such a delicate balance – shifting the focus to the group dynamic and providing enough detail to keep things interesting, without the whole thing ending up merely a conglomeration of scaled-down individual bios. Sounds like Hay does an excellent job!

    • Jenny says:

      I think the bio helped me take the poetry more seriously, (though not really like it more) if only because so much of it was political — the stuff we don’t read any more. I don’t enjoy Romantic poetry, with few exceptions (a little Byron and a little Keats) but they certainly had the courage of their convictions, such as they were. And this biography focused on the way the lives affected the literature, so it was very satisfying.

  7. gaskella says:

    I’m not into their poetry, but their lives are endlessly fascinating – that summer house party in Geneva when it was too dark to go out due the ash cloud from the volcano whose name escapes me, must have been something. It goes onto the wishlist!

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, that summer must have been amazing. There are certain periods of time you wish you could visit, you know what I mean? The 1920s in Paris…

  8. Aarti says:

    I put The Lunar Society on my TBR after you reviewed it, and now I am going to put The Romantics on there, too! Not least because of the BEAUTIFUL cover, I must say.

  9. Jeanne says:

    I’ve been wondering about this one. I love stories about these wacky folks, and didn’t know if this would be so serious and scholarly that I’d regret picking it up. It doesn’t sound like it.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s scholarly — it’s got notes and a bibliography, which I like — but not so serious that it’s heavy. The prose is very lively indeed. I think you’d like it.

  10. As you mention in another comment, I’m also not a lover of the Romantic poets, but their lives have always fascinated me. I took a course once just on the Romantics and wrote a paper on their sense of community and how that played out in their writing – particularly when it came to science and the role science played in writing and also how writing/the arts played out in science. Fascinating times.

    • Jenny says:

      Hay mentions the role of science, but it’s not a main aspect of her book. How interesting that you did a paper about that, too! I bet you’d enjoy this one.

  11. Bookish Hobbit says:

    I have a feeling that I would really enjoy this book. Thanks for the review!

  12. This has been on my wish list for ages, I’m waiting for someone to feel generous! For another angle on this group I’d reccomend Passion by Jude Morgan – it’s got just about the worst cover I’ve ever seen on a historical novel but though a bit slow in places is the best hstorical (excluding Wolf Hall) that I’ve read for a long time. He’s particularly good on his female charecters, especially Mary Shelley.

  13. rebeccareid says:

    this sounds so wonderful! I love mini-biographies that put authors or historical persons in context with each other. And I have always been rather interested in the romantics….although I don’t know much about them…

  14. JaneGS says:

    Just added this to my must read list–I love the Romantic poets and the stories around them and it sounds like the author really does an outstanding job of putting their relationships and work into context.

    Wonderful post.

  15. Thelma says:

    Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Many thanks, However I am going through problems with your RSS.
    I don’t know why I am unable to subscribe to it. Is there anybody having similar RSS problems? Anybody who knows the solution will you kindly respond? Thanks!!

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